Friday, November 15, 2013


A guy I’ve known for years told me a story this past week. That is not unusual. It seems as if people have been telling me stories, or trying to, my whole life. I wish I had found the time to listen to them all but I just didn’t. For a long time there I thought I was too busy to keep my own mouth shut and sit quietly as someone talked and I took it in. Nowadays I find myself becoming, I hope, the curious and patient listener I remember myself being before I worked so much. This railroad story was told to me by a man who worked in LaSalle as a switchman while going to LPO junior college in the sixties. He went on to accomplish many other things. It took place in 1963, which was fifty years ago. I can’t quite comprehend that.

As he started I remarked “I don’t hear many railroad stories these days, or know many people working on the railroad. They must have automated a lot of the tasks that used to be done by people. You think that’s so?”

The guy telling the story seems to have left the present, preferring to talk almost exclusively about the past. He ignored my remark as if he hadn’t heard it. Maybe he didn’t. As he talked it seemed as if he was far away. He’d mention a person and pause, looking away, as if picturing him or hearing his voice. When he began to describe the night this story took place his voice took on a different tone. He was I think less in the restaurant hunched over a cup of coffee and a piece of peach pie and more in a train yard fifty years younger.

Here’s his story.

We made up trains at night, usually pushing empty cars on the spur to the cement plant and bringing loaded cars back. There was a hill we could roll them down. They’d bang together when coupling and make an assembled string of cars that would go out the next day. We’d work till the middle of the night, go home, and then at daybreak the engineers showed up, hooked on to those strings of cars we put together, and start out.

The office left index cards for us with lists of numbers on them that corresponded to the numbers chalked on the freight cars, and with that as our guide we’d make up trains. My supervisor, about my age and more friend than boss, trained me the first day while walking from the freight station to the yard. It took about ten minutes. If you didn’t catch on to the system they’d fire you. But if you got it you could keep that job as long as you wanted, if you did not exceed their limit of demerits. They had s system of demerits, or marks made against you for errors and accidents, and sort of kept a book on you. No credits, just demerits. But they wiped your slate clean every year and started over. It was a great job.

My supervisor and three of us were rolling cars loaded with bags of cement, hooking them together, when we got caught in a cold rain. A storm came up quickly. It had been hot as hell that day and then a cold wind hit us. A bank of big clouds rolled in and in no time huge drops of rain began to pelt us. It was amazingly cold, and then hail hit us. It bounced white on the ground around us.

The super yelled ‘Run for an empty!’ We ran between the tracks up the hill toward the empty freight cars. By the time we piled into a car and closed the door we were soaked and shivering. That only happens in Illinois right? Sweating your ass off one minute and hunched up in the cold the next. So we’re in this freight car, shivering and wet, and the super says ‘let’s build a fire.’

There were pallets in the car. We busted them up and started a fire. Cracked the doors to get some cross ventilation. In those wooden cars at that time there was a metal plate in the middle section of the car by the doors. They put steel there so the forklift trucks didn’t wear out the planks. We stood close to the fire to dry out. The rain was beating the roof and sides of that freight car like a drum. Outside the thunder and wind continued loud and hard. But we were safe and dry, a little group of men in a freight car, our faces lit up by the fire. The guys that smoked lit up. We laughed and wished we had something to drink to celebrate having beat the weather. Before long the rain stopped and we returned to work. As we rolled the door of the freight car back wide the cold wind hit us again.

“What about the fire?” I asked. Looking back in the car there was a small pile of coals glowing red on the steel.

“It’ll go out on its own,” the supervisor said. We worked another hour or so and all went home.

I was asleep when my Mom woke me up. It was early morning. Too early.

“Phone’s for you. It’s your supervisor at the railroad.”

My supervisor never called. I knew something was wrong.


“It’s me. You know that empty we were in last night during the storm?”


“There’s nothing left of it but the wheels. Damned thing burned up during the night.”

“Oh oh.”

“Oh oh is right. We’re in trouble. Turns out it was a car that had been carrying sulphur for the zinc plant. Sulphur powder must have got hot under that steel and kept burning after we left, then spread. We’re damn lucky it was off by itself and was the only car that burned.”

“What do you think we should do?”

“I don’t know. What do you think?”

“I think we should blame the hobos.”

It was easy to blame things on the hobos. There weren’t as many hobos as there used to be in the train yard but there were enough that when tools went missing, or things got broken, we suggested to the big bosses that the hobos were causing those problems. Actually, they did cause a few problems but not nearly as many as were attributed to them. I was scared. I knew we could lose our jobs over this.

“I don’t think we can blame the hobos, not this time. I think we have to tell the truth,” he said.

“But we’ll get fired. I can get another job but you’ve got kids. Can you afford to lose your job?”

“No. But I can’t afford to lie either. Stealing a crowbar and blaming the hobos is one thing. Burning down a freight car and blaming someone else is another. I think if we tell the truth they may let us off. But if they find out we lied we’re for sure done. We didn’t mean any harm.”

My stomach was turning over.

“I’m calling the rest of the guys and tell them the same thing. We’re telling the truth.”

“OK.” I said. “Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind going with the truth. I just have to know what our story is gonna be.” I thought to myself my short railroad career, and his, was over.

The railroad had its own system of justice. They set up a hearing date, called in the union reps, and held what seemed like court in a few weeks right there in the freight station in LaSalle. They brought down a railroad guy from Chicago wearing a white shirt and tie and carrying a brief case. He looked official. It was hot again. Blistering hot and no air conditioning. They had all the doors and windows in the station open to get air. They moved tables and had us sitting before this guy like an inquisition. Felt like a firing squad. The guy in charge looked hot and uncomfortable. Beet red, veins standing out on his face. Should have loosened his collar but didn’t.

As luck would have it they were moving cattle on the Rock Island line at that time. Most cattle now are moved by trucks on the interstate but in those days we’d move cattle up to the stockyards in Chicago on the railroad. Just about the time the guy started asking us questions a string of cattle cars rolled up and stopped by the station. With all those doors and windows open you could smell ‘em. Hot summer day, bunch of cows packed together in a train car, it stunk big time. As the guy asked me my name and age one of the cows let out with this low bellow ‘Mmmmmooooaaaw. Mmmmmooooaaaw.’ We had a hard time not laughing. The guy conducting the hearing didn’t like it one bit. I’m not sure the day shift fellas didn’t roll that train up there on purpose. Maybe riled up the cows too so they made noise.

Anyway they all seemed flummoxed that we told the truth. We overdid the amount of hail that hit us a tad, and the size of it too, but other than that told the same story, each of us, which was easy because it was exactly what happened. The inquisitor with the too tight collar asked us some questions. Then the union guys huddled with each other and after doing so conferred with the hearing officer while the cattle continued to bawl and the stink and the heat rose. We fanned ourselves with the papers they’d given us detailing our infractions. The super mopped his brow. We didn’t talk to each other. But I caught his eye and he winked.

After a while the hearing officer sat back down and began to speak loudly in a stern tone. In a complicated arrangement, following the rules in only a convoluted and marginal way, he forgave a number of previous demerits we had earned in the current year earlier than was customary, making room for the whopping number of demerits handed down for unintentionally destroying railroad property. When it was all over each of us involved remained on the edge, just a few demerits short of termination, dangling by a thread, but still employed at the railroad. It made us think the fix was somehow in.

“That experience served me well,” my friend said, now back in the diner. “I always felt bad I wanted to blame the hobos, but thought it was the only way out. I didn’t believe enough in the power of honesty.”

Our coffee had grown cold during his telling of the story. I realized what I’d missed during the years I’d been too busy, convinced whatever I was doing or thinking was more important than listening to the tales of others. The waitress came by and poured a warm up in our mugs.

“So do you think that whole deal actually changed you?” I asked.

“I think it did. I think everyone in charge would have preferred we lied. It would have made their job easier. But when we told the truth they sure didn’t want to fire us. I can’t say I lived the entire rest of my life entirely truthfully, but seeing the truth win out made it a lot easier to be honest from then on.”

Life, even life lived fifty years ago, can teach your things if you let it. Stopping to pay attention is the trick.

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